Until recently, I’d never heard of Keith Tippett, despite his being rather famous and – like the paella chef who’s yet to discover paprika – I had no idea that he was exactly what I needed. Especially this evening, on Wednesday the Seventh of December.
Of course, it’s not all about one man. Tonight is about the commingling of musical minds, the powerful connections forged through both chance and contrivance.
But who is our nominal man of the hour? The potted history states that KT was born in Bristol in 1947; studied piano, organ and choir; started a band at age 14 and moved to London in 1967 to further his musical adventures. Not much later he’d put together a sextet and a 50-piece big band called Centipede (who recorded a double album called Septober Energy) and had three studio excursions playing piano with King Crimson.
Between then and now he’s been suitably busy, recording dozens upon dozens of albums, playing literally countless concerts, completing innumerable commissions. Now in his sixties, he's in Perth for the first time. But none of that indicates exactly what I should expect as I walk into the well-manicured foyer, its ceiling festooned with dangling gold, and U-turn down the staircase into the Studio Underground.
The room is bustling. I search out a spare seat. The lights descend.
The WA Youth Jazz Orchestra is here in their concert blacks. Keith is here with his neo-Victorian waistcoast and sideburns. The first piece billows into the air.
The tune - an excerpt from late ‘90s composition ‘First Weaving’ - is a bundle of controlled but frantic energy. Walking bass, giddy descending horns, strident pinball rhythms. It could almost pass as a mainstream type of big-band number but its formalistic qualities gradually reveal themselves as a kind of trojan horse for weirdness, leaving instead a raw energy, communal handclaps, and the unfettered shrieking of saxophones splattering paint in a blurry major-key corridor.
The second piece, which follows on seamlessly, takes us on a sharp left turn. With the opener implicitly promising a dense, rhythmic jazz journey, we’re suddenly thrown into a pool of quiet ambience: specifically, a selection of players running their fingers around wine-glass rims. Just one note at first, water distributed evenly, a pure synth-like tone ringing out through the underground chamber. Then more players join, with their own wine glasses, and new pitches enter the sonic field. It’s a mystifying, uncommon texture - almost alien in its thick, hovering simplicity. This is gradually pitted against phasing rhythms and hushed group vocal chants to create a tight but irregular interplay, reminiscent of Steve Reich or John Adams.
Soon we hear from a curated ensemble of musicians (or “mujicians”) who’ve been involved in Tura’s iMprov program, honing their improvisational skills both in sessions with Tippett and over the course of recent months and years. The large-scale gathering incorporates diverse players and instrumentation, including harp, piano, harmonica, saxophone, violin and heaps more. Pitter patter coalescing and swelling to something singular, sensitive, never to be repeated. What marks the performance as truly exceptional is the group’s ability to suddenly and smoothly transition into snippets of prepared material, giving a sense of shape and intentionality to the soundscape. Large ensemble free improv can often feel amorphous and meandering, so this is the perfect strategy - it also creates a sense of genuine magic, as the transitions emerge inexplicably, white doves from handkerchiefs. Lana Rothnie’s vocal solo and Catherine Ashley’s harp are standouts here.
There’s a short interval where we re-stock on wine and conversation, before returning for the titular Mujician Mosaic ensemble.
Here, we get ‘Thoughts To Geoff,’ from Tippett’s classic ’71 album Dedicated to You But You Weren’t Listening - a potpourri of wiggly motifsthat convene into a beboppy toboggan slide. There’s the more obscure ‘Dedicated to Mingus,’ followed by the serpentine swing of ‘Sketch for Gary / Billy Goes to Town.’ Enigmatic piece ‘A May Day’ is tailed by the sparse, pastoral ‘A Song’ and the whole thing closes on the lavishly beautiful 6/4 burner ‘Cider Dance,’ its lush brass harmonies cascading over the performance’s final minutes. Standing ovation. The mujician mosaic features too many wonderful performances to mention, but I was blown away by the solo double bass escapades of Djuna Lee: truly remarkable playing under pressure, nimble up and down the next, a satisfying jigsaw of wood-click and hefty low end resonance.
Apart from a closing speech and a screen-projected interview, Tippett himself rarely dominates one’s attention. During pieces, he’s happily on the sidelines, contributing piano or a little music box, and otherwise delivering some sparse, expressive conducting. His is an approach that emphasises both extremes of a composer’s role: that is, either to present a fully-formed and intricately described vision to be realised, or else to set some vague parameters in which performers may improvise, experiment or explore. The relentless juxtaposition of these two approaches is perhaps the concert’s most striking feature, an instantly memorable and thrilling point of difference.
It’s a concert that makes me genuinely excited, not only for the composition of Keith Tippett but also for the musical present and future of Perth. Turn cleverly brought together a diverse and ever-shifting cast of performers here (thanks must go to Tristan Parr for co-ordinating), highlighting a range of wild talents from various “scenes.” To hear them intermingle and follow a considered, adventurous path set by a master bandleader is a treat. I wander home and wax lyrical to anyone who’ll listen. Tonight wasn’t just a great jazz concert or an accomplished recital of modern compositions. It was musical creativity and artistic interaction at its most vivid and inspiring.